“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined…” I’ve been hearing these words at Christmas for probably forty years. I was raised in the Episcopal Church – and this text from the prophet Isaiah is almost always used at Christmas, to accompany the Nativity gospel from Luke. Its message and images go along with the themes of Christmas – the kinds of words that come printed in gold on Christmas cards: Peace. Hope. Joy.
But there are some bits of this passage from Isaiah that don’t fit so well with that Christmas-card Christianity. God’s people rejoice in their salvation… “as people exult when dividing plunder.” Does that sound like your living room on Christmas morning? It’s really an image of war, of conquest. Of the glee on the faces of enemy soldiers as they take whatever they want from the homes and barns and shops and synagogues of a conquered town.
And then a couple verses later, another image of war: “For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” I looked up this passage in several translations and found that it’s really trying to call to mind the sound of those boots – the ominous and overwhelming clomp-clomp-clomp of a marching army. Not your army. The other guys. Marching down your street while you and your family huddle terrified in your home, or flee into the countryside with nothing but the clothes on your back.
Plunder. Blood. The trampling boots of an invading army. And that fire – the fire that both destroys and cleanses. Very Christmassy, isn’t it?…
The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE, 7 centuries or so before Jesus’ birth. The Biblical book we know as Isaiah, scholars believe, actually contains the words of two or three different prophets, spread over a century or more, but this early passage from chapter 9 is probably the voice of the real, the original Isaiah. Isaiah was called by God to speak God’s words to the people of Israel. Parts of what was once King David’s great kingdom had already been conquered by the Assyrian Empire. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was feeling threatened too, as Assyria eyed their territory.
The message of this portion of the book of Isaiah is essentially this: Bad times are coming, because God’s people have turned from God’s ways, worshipping other gods, perpetrating and tolerating injustice towards the poor and vulnerable, and mistakenly placing their faith in wealth and military might instead of in God. But God is faithful even if God’s people are not; though much will be lost, some will be saved; God’s people will begin again, on the other side of the struggles to come.
In these verses from Isaiah – a tiny snippet of a much longer text – the prophet Isaiah speaks of hope beyond the present danger, and of a child who will bring in a new time of peace and prosperity for Judah, living faithfully as God’s people. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
This text, like the rest of the Old Testament, is shared by both Jews and Christians. Jewish interpreters see this passage as describing Hezekiah, the new king of Judah in Isaiah’s time. Hezekiah was faithful to God and worked for reform and restoration of right living and right worship among his people. Christians, on the other hand, see this passage as one of many in the Old Testament that point towards a coming Messiah, a Chosen One sent from God to reconcile God and humanity and usher in a whole new way of living as God’s people. We read these words as a description of Jesus, seven hundred years before his birth. Who’s right? … I’d prefer to avoid the question! Prophetic texts, like poetry, resist having their meaning pinned down once and for all. I rather like the idea that the text could point to both Hezekiah and Jesus, could mean both of these things, and more.
Anyway. Back to those bloody cloaks and tramping boots. Those images were all too vivid for the people who first heard Isaiah’s prophesies. Their sister kingdom had recently been conquered. Surely people had fled south into Judah; surely nightmarish stories had been shared, of pillage, murder and destruction. Isaiah’s words intentionally evoke the violence and terror of war in order to overturn them with this vision of a new Kingdom of justice, righteousness, and peace – ENDLESS peace! – under God’s authority and protection.
Context matters, for understanding our texts from Scripture. Those of you who hear me preach regularly know that I often do something like this – offer a little bit of explanation of what was going on when these words were first written down. I’m not just trying to show off – and for the record, I don’t just know this stuff. I dust off seminary notes and check trusted Internet sources, and generally do just enough research to sound like I know what I’m talking about. I do that research because context matters. Not to divert our gut responses into intellectual conversation, not to move the impact of these texts from heart to head; but because sometimes the context helps us understand more deeply, helps us find where the world of the text overlaps with our world, how the time of Isaiah is not that different from our time. For the semi-automatic weapons, the pipe bombs, the suicide vests, shall all be burned in a cleansing fire, and God shall usher in an age of justice and peace…
Noticing the hard parts of this text, these images that reveal the trauma of war, makes the word Peace stand out so much more. This isn’t Christmas-card peace they’re talking about, a day when your cell phone doesn’t ring and the kids don’t fight and you can drink hot cider and watch an old movie. This is the bone-deep desperate longing of people who see war coming, who are listening every day for those tramping boots, who plant their fields and raise their children and wonder if it’ll be next year or next week or tomorrow that the world bursts into flame. Peace. Please, God. Peace.
And you know, it’s true of the Nativity Gospel, too. We’ve let it become sweet, even saccharine. We’ve romanticized the darker details, or they’ve become so familiar that we don’t hear the overtones, we don’t read between the lines. But there’s plenty to read, if we try. Starting with “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” Those words are Christmas for me; I’ve heard them so many times on nights just like this, in the pine-scented joyful darkness; I speak them and my heart fills.
But this is not a happy moment the text is describing. Luke, our Gospeller, is reminding us that the moment when God comes to us as a baby is not one of the better moments in Israel’s history. Israel is under Roman rule, and its own king, a puppet for the Romans, is corrupt, cruel, and possibly crazy. This registration that sends Joseph and Mary on their journey – this is an empire’s management of a conquered people. The registration had two purposes: taxation – figuring out whom to take money from, and how much – and conscription – registering men for the possibility of being taken to serve the Roman empire as soldiers.
I could go on. I could wonder why this young pregnant woman was dragged along on this journey instead of left with her mother and other older female relatives, as you’d expect, and hypothesize that her family cast her out over her unexpected pregnancy. I could talk about the stony hearts of people who wouldn’t make room for a woman in labor. I could talk about how the straw on the stable floor was probably less shiny and pristine than it usually looks in our pretty Nativity pictures. I could talk about birth, the agony and mess and danger. But I think you get the idea.
I worry about our Christmas-card Christianity. I do. I understand why we don’t have images of bloody war-cloaks, or governmental oppression, or filthy animal stalls, on our Christmas cards. Our real world has enough dark and troubling images in it. We need the solace that we can find in images of peace and beauty. The serene baby, the adoring mother. The animals gathered round, clean and friendly as pets. Pure colors, warm lights, hovering angels. We need that.
But at the same time… We citizens of 21st century media culture know that images are powerful. And I worry about what we say, without meaning to say it, with these images of Christmas, of the moment of God’s incarnation among humankind. Are we saying, or seeming to say, that God comes to us, that God is vividly and truly present with us, in moments of peace and simplicity, of beauty and love? Because that is true – so deeply true. I know it, with gratitude.
But it is also deeply, importantly true that God comes to us, that God is present with us, in moments of struggle, terror, grief, and despair. And God is there, powerfully present, in the moments of our lives where what is sweet and good and lovely rubs up against what is dark and difficult and painful. In that troubling tension, destructive or productive, God is there too.
Noticing the hard parts of our Christmas scriptures can help us get past Christmas-card Christianity. Those big words, Hope, Joy, Peace – they are so much more than just words printed in gold. They have sustained people a lot like us, in times a lot like ours, for centuries and millennia. They are words that strive to name a Truth that is strong, and real, and enduring, the Truth of a loving God who is never not with us. Who never doesn’t love us.
Sometimes peace seems like a warm blanket that enfolds us, sometimes it seems like a cruel joke, but God is here.
Sometimes joy is a fountain bubbling up to water our souls, sometimes it’s a half-forgotten dream or a mirage – but God is here.
Sometimes hope is the bedrock that lets us stand firm and unshaken, sometimes we struggle to see even a glimmer in the darkness; but God is here.
God is here. Born among us, born for us, once and always. Merry Christmas.